Spooky action at a distance

Spooky action at a distance is a blog run by emmy verte, a fantasy writer and hypertext enthusiast. Here you will find musings on sci-fi, fantasy location exploration and short fiction. You can donate to support Ukraine here.

Twelve Angry Rooms

I’ve found nine to twelve rooms to be the ideal dungeon size for me (usually explored within one or two sessions). Anything more starts becoming tedious to prep and hard to keep track of. Less rooms feel a bit too short for exploration consequences (like torch burn out and random encounters) to really kick in. Around ten rooms has been a good rule of thumb for me because of that.

So how do you quickly draw up twelve rooms you might ask?

Create Thematic Areas

I divide the dungeon into three basic thematic areas. Note that these are just the most skeletal themes possible, and your areas will either build on them, or have an entirely different structure.

  1. Surface: newest and least dangerous elements of the dungeons. The treasure is also limited, as most of it has probably been already looted by others.
  2. Descent: here is when the players get a glimpse of the riches trapped below. As the danger increases, the players are compelled to continue their delve to cover the cost of spent resources.
  3. Deep: this is where the dungeon does not hold itself back. The oldest and most dangerous aspects await here. If the players have passed this challenge they should be fairly rewarded.

I am going to make a dungeon with you right now. My little sibling gave me the idea of a Broken Bastion, so I’m going with that. What areas can we think of? In front of the bastion I am going to place the farmlands, that is the surface level of the dungeon. Remember, the dungeon is any location you can explore procedurally. Then within the bastion itself I will place the walls (descent) and the keep (deep). I am using this example to show that dungeons don’t always have to be underground caves.

Give Rooms a Central Feature

Every room should have something the players can interact with. When keying rooms I always place a couple of things that are a) dangerous b) valuable c) useful. However, each thematic area will contain three or four rooms from the list below.

  • Hazardous (natural danger): rot and ruin of nature that poses a challenge to the players. Extreme plant growth, flooded tunnels, ash and smoke. This is a great opportunity to attack and deplete your players’ equipment. Scary fauna (like piranhas or spiders) can also fit in this category.
  • Trapped (unnatural danger): mechanism built to target and get rid of treasure hunters. Think of the dungeon’s creators, their technology and mindset. The traps could have also been made by new dwellers of the location, or by a rival band that got there first.
  • Treasure: especially valuable object, usually hidden or guarded. I usually place magic items, or items valuable to factions in these rooms. Something that has more than just a price tag and can be used by players in interesting ways.
  • Guarded: creature or character that wants to stop the players from going deeper into the dungeon. Does not have to be violent or especially hostile, but charming, tricking or defeating the guard may give players new options for exploring the dungeon (alternate paths, reduced hostilities, special equipment).

Continuing my example of the Broken Bastion.

Surface (farmland) Descent (walls) Deep (keep)
Hazardous Abandoned crops are crawling with insects, waiting to jump onto fresh rations. Curious birds have set up nests here. They try to swipe away anything shiny. Keep’s stairwell draws in high winds, blowing out torches instantly.
Trapped A deep well, golden coins glimmer at the bottom. Bandits have placed spiked on the walls. Lowered drawbridge with a hidden trapdoor. Victim falls into the moat below. Grand hall with an ornamental chandelier, rigged to drop on trespassers.
Treasure An old cannon, able to destroy a castle wall. If only there was gunpowder somewhere. A wizard’s staff, lodged between rocks, hanging over a sudden drop. The dethroned monarch’s crown, lost in the fighting and chaos.
Guarded Farmers warning players of the Bastion’s dangers, but they know a secret path. Rogue kingsguard have set up camp here, using there rifles to scare off intruders. An old serpent, seduces pray with promises of gold and power, then consumed them.

Mess With Boundaries

After going through the hard part of making the little chart, now we can be a little silly. To make the dungeon feel more like a real place, you have to blend the rooms. You can achieve this by having aspect of one room bleed into the other. Detach rooms from their intended location and place them somewhere else. You don’t have to explain it, but think about the effects it would have on the surrounding rooms. Combine rooms to achieve surprising results.

In the Broken Bastion I might combine the old cannon and the farmers. Maybe they know where to find gunpowder for the cannon, or where the best spot to fire is. Maybe the farmers are old soldiers who have vowed to never cause destruction again?

For the mapmaking I don’t have any special advice. I like to keep rooms as interconnected as possible with several loops.

Now you should have a solid foundation which you can use for your dungeon. For final touches I would recommend adding a couple of secondary interactable elements to each room (treasure and danger, perhaps a puzzle). Afterwards you have a location ready to be explored!

What other thematic structures do you have in mind?

Published on October 9, 2022.

Tagged: osr   worldbuilding   dungeon